From Master Teacher to Master Learner

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As we gain access to more and more knowledge and information online, the future will belong to those who are powerful, literate, curious learners. That means emphasis in classrooms must move toward helping students develop the skills, literacies, and dispositions to be powerful, self-organized learners. Teachers who are themselves master learners in new, modern contexts are crucial to making that happen.

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Chapter 1: Teachers as Learners First

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Just so we’re clear from the outset, here’s the thesis of this book in tweet-ready form: The world has changed. Knowledge is everywhere. Teachers must become master learners instead of master knowers.

We educators can and should engage in a healthy, ongoing conversation around the ramifications (good and bad) of the web and other technologies that have emerged on the scene since the 1990s, especially as they pertain to learning. But one part of the debate is over: the potential ways in which we and our students can learn have changed forever, and we can no longer frame the education and schooling experiences we offer to our students through the lens of the education and schooling experiences that we ourselves had. The reality is that today, because of our ability (at least in the developed world) to use technology to connect, create, and share as individuals on a global scale, many (if not most) of the basic assumptions upon which the concept of school was based are growing increasingly irrelevant.

 

Chapter 2: Qualities of Modern Learning

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Since the mid-1990s, we’ve been talking about, writing about, and promoting the idea of 21st century learning. But to be honest, most of what passes for 21st century learning is really 20th or even 19th century learning with an elevated emphasis placed on those skills that are required for success. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills (2011) articulated those 4C skills that garner the most discussion, namely creativity, communication, critical thinking, and collaboration, all of which are no doubt important for functioning at a high level in almost every aspect of life, but none of which is specifically 21st century. In 2015, it seems about time we retired the phrase. (Stay tuned, as I’m sure we’ll be talking 22nd century skills in no time.)

The whole 21st century learning concept is a part of this apparent obsession we in education have developed for modifying the noun learning, as in lifelong learning, project-based learning, e-learning, collaborative learning, flipped learning, personalized learning, blended learning, inquiry-based learning, student-centered learning, mobile learning, social learning, adaptive learning, connected learning, passion-based learning, cooperative learning, deeper learning, and more. Importantly, when we use these terms, we almost always do so in the context of doing better on the traditional outcomes of schooling. Regardless of how the methods or pedagogies might have changed, the end results really haven’t. So we’re flipping or personalizing primarily to improve, not to fundamentally change.

 

Chapter 3: Qualities of Modern Teacher-Learners

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In Mindstorms (which should still be required reading for every teacher), Papert (1993b) tells a great story that reveals much about how students perceive their teachers. Briefly, a group of high school seniors had been working on using the LOGO programming language to help create large paper banners wishing a “Merry Christmas!” to be hung in their school. At one point, the teacher and some of her students were attempting to debug a part of the program they had written that was causing the letter R to render incorrectly:

As they puzzled together the child has a revelation. “Do you mean,” he said [to the teacher], “that you really don’t know how to fix it?” The child did not yet know how to say it, but what had been revealed to him was that he and the teacher had been engaged together in a research project. The incident is poignant. It speaks of all the times this child entered into teachers’ games of “let’s do this together” all the while knowing that the collaboration was a fiction. Discovery cannot be a setup; invention cannot be scheduled . . . Sharing the problem and the experience of solving it allows a child to learn from an adult not “by doing what the teacher says” but “by doing what the teacher does.” And one of the things that the teacher does is pursue a problem until it is completely understood. (Papert, 1993b, pp. 114–115)

 

Chapter 4: The Toolkit for Teachers as Modern Learners

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Assuming you’re ready to dip your toe into the modern learning pool, I want to give you some starting points. I’m not going to spend a great deal of time with how-to on any of these tools; part of this process is using the resources available online to teach yourself the technologies. As I have alluded to, we must develop an independent mindset for much of what we learn, especially when it comes to tools. Again, that doesn’t mean that a good teacher can’t be an important part of our learning, but if you’re waiting for the Twitter workshop, you’re missing the point. (I’ve never heard of a kid waiting for the Instagram course, have you?) Just as a starting point, I’m going to identify a handful of tools that can help you understand the potentials, challenges, and nuances of learning online. All of these revolve around information and connections at some level. And all of them relate to our new roles as curators of both knowledge and people.

By this time, I’m almost certain you know someone who is on Twitter. It’s rare that I go to conferences or workshops where a significant percentage of attendees aren’t sharing their thinking, their questions, and their best links on Twitter. It’s also common for at least a few people to agree that Twitter is their number-one tool for professional development as educators. (If you don’t believe me, check out Jane Hart’s [2014] annual list of top learning tools as voted on by people around the world. Twitter perennially tops the list.) Although Twitter may have some limitations, it’s as good a place as any to start if you want to begin to experience connection, sharing, and transparency.

 

Chapter 5: The Future of Teaching and Learning

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It’s easy to conclude that our freedom to learn on our own terms means we in education should singularly focus on developing kids as powerful autodidacts who can teach themselves anything from Minecraft to microorganisms. To be honest, I lean toward that quite a bit. Obviously, I still believe that schools and teachers have a huge role in the learning lives of our kids, but in my view, children are autodidacts out of the womb. But almost by design, schools systemically take away their agency over learning and, in the process, reduce engagement and enthusiasm for it.

That’s got to change. As Cathy Davidson and David Theo Goldberg (2010) write in The Future of Thinking:

The future of conventional learning institutions is past—it’s over—unless those directing the course of our learning institutions realize, now and urgently, the necessity of fundamental and foundational change. Most fundamental to such a change is the understanding that participatory learning is about a process and not always a final product. (pp. 14–15)

 

Appendix: Reading List

ePub

And What Do You Mean by Learning? by Seymour Sarason (2004)

The Anti-Education Era: Creating Smarter Students Through Digital Learning by James Paul Gee (2013)

The Book of Learning and Forgetting by Frank Smith (1998)

The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer by Seymour Papert (1993)

Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich (2000)

Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling by John Taylor Gatto (1992)

Experience and Education by John Dewey (1938)

How Children Learn by John Holt (1967)

Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom by Sylvia Libow Martinez and Gary Stager (2013)

Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas by Seymour Papert (1993)

A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown (2011)

 

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